Author: Anand Neelakantan
Publisher: Leadstart Publications
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Revisionist retellings of the Mahabharata are the flavor of the season. After Palace of Illusions which told the story from Draupadi’s perspective, and Karna’s Wife which gave Karna’s (fictional) wife’s take on it, we have Ajaya, Epic of the Kaurava Clan by Anand Neelakantan. The first book in the two-part series is called Roll of the Dice.
At the outset, the author explains his aim in plain terms; he is here to tell the Kaurava version of the well-known epic. His hero is Suyodhana, eldest of the Kauravas, wrongly maligned by Pandava propaganda, so much so that even his name has been twisted into a mockery of himself – Duryodhana.
In the traditional version, the Pandavas are the upholders of dharma. In Neelakantan’s retelling, the ‘dharma’ of the Pandavas is not about ‘duty’ or ‘justice’ – it is actually about rigidly and unquestioningly following caste rules. What the Pandavas stand for is a society rife with caste-based discrimination, where merit has no value. This is the ‘dharma’ they wish to uphold. Their antagonists, on the other hand, are the egalitarian Kauravas, represented mainly by Suyodhana, who believes in equality, personal merit and accomplishments, charity towards the poor etc.
This is an explosive idea, and could have been used to much effect. Unfortunately, Suyodhana the hero fails to capture the reader’s empathy. In spite of repeated references about him ‘going to visit the poor in his kingdom’ every 20 pages or so, the attempt to present him as a combination of social reformer-Gautama Buddha-animal rights activist does not work. In fact, the debate on ‘whose dharma is it’ would have been better served if someone from the marginalized sections of society were the protagonist of the book. Karna the charioteer’s son, Eklavya the tribal, Jara the lowest of the low….. their perspectives would have had more force and meaning. Suyodhana, a blue blooded royal himself, comes across as hesitant, self-deprecating, unsure of himself, a lamb among the Pandava wolves – not a convincing picture if you have come across him in other retellings, and definitely not hero material, except perhaps when he takes a public stand and makes Karna a king. Neither does Suyodhana’s emphasis on merit versus inherited glory ring true; if he is such a believer in merit, why did he not leave the Hastinapur throne for the best among all the Kaurava and Pandava cousins?
Most glaringly, the one incident that gains the Pandavas most sympathy and establishes the Kauravas as villains – the disrobing of Draupadi in public – is not even described in the book! It is as if the author could find no excuse for the Kauravas and decided that the best thing was not to mention the incident at all.(Edit: In the comments below, readers have indignantly pointed out that the book ends before the incident, so clearly it will be explored in Part 2. However, I re-read the last couple of pages, and it still seems to me that the disrobing is happening “off-screen”. There is a mention of people being aghast and upset, but at what? I assume it is at the Vastraharan incident. We’ll know for sure when Part 2 comes out.)
What is sad is that the Mahabharata, as told in folklore, tribal stories, and other local versions all over India, has enough material to show a more nuanced view of the Kauravas on its own. It is not necessary to invent incidents, as the author does, to show the Kauravas in a more sympathetic light. This book, however, tried so hard to malign the Pandavas and show the Kauravas as gracious, charitable, sensitive men that it feels like one is reading propaganda, written by the Kauravas public relations team! A more balanced rendering would have felt much more convincing.
There are some sparks of innovation that held my interest. The incident where Arjuna, among all his classmates, is admired for his intense focus on his target – the parrot’s eye – is meant to glorify the quality of being single-minded in reaching one’s goal. Neelakantan admires the opposite quality instead – the quality of having a larger perspective, seeing the bigger picture and not being narrow-minded in attaining one’s goal. Suyodhana sees the parrot not as a target but as a living thing to be cherished – a beautiful thought. Similarly, Mayasura’s curse on Indraprastha (considered by some to be modern-day Delhi) – “You will always be ruled by the corrupt, women will fear to walk your streets…..” – is an intriguing idea.
Roll of the Dice from the Ajaya: Epic of the Kaurava Clan series was ultimately a disappointment. The writing was reasonably good, and made me wish that the author had just chosen to tell the Mahabharata in a more balanced, nuanced way, instead of picking any one side and championing their cause. For a more engaging and thought-provoking take on the Mahabharata, read Kurukshetra by Mahashweta Devi or Randamoozham by MT Vasudevan Nair instead. For those wanting to read a simple retelling of the popularly accepted version, Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik is a good start.
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Thats sad..was expecting this book to be good.
I, too, had hoped for more…..:(….was very disappointed. I haven’t read the previous book by the author – Asura – but I read an excerpt of it and it seemed vastly superior.
The book is good actually. I like it more than Asura. You might be of different opinion after reading it. Reviews are most often one sided.
Even in the book Jaya, Devdutt Pattanaik says that the Kauravas went to Heaven while the Pandavas went to Hell, before entering the heaven. Makes you think that the versions of Mahabharata as we heard them might be skewed… This is disappointing, especially after reading the rave reviews that Asura got…
I am considering reading Asura. The excerpt I read was much better written than Ajaya. Have you read Asura?
Nope. Not yet. It is on my ‘to read’ list though 🙂
Asura is a wonderful book. Its different in many ways and very engaging to. You should read it .
I disagree with this review, besides readers should not go by such reviews and judge a book. Every individual has a different opinion.
It is certainly true that one man’s elixir is another man’s poison! Going by the comments here, several people seem to have enjoyed the book.
I disagree with this review.The point of the author was not to show Suyodhana as a sympathetic character but to retell the whole Mahabharata by giving more importance to the Kaurava clan.There is no specific intention to portray him as the hero.He is shown as a normal individual, like any other man, having his own share of strengths and weaknesses.And most importantly, there is another book coming out which is the sequel of Ajaya, where the story will continue from the point where Draupadi has been called. That is why the author has not mentioned the disrobing incident.
Definitely, a retelling of the Mahabharata from the Kaurava perspective can be thought-provoking. From some of the comments here, it looks like many people have enjoyed reading ‘the other side of the story’!
A very good, largely mature review. It is good that you have stuck to the construction of the plot and not delved into the execution, which in my personal opinion was amateurish. The premise of this book had so much promise, but in the end, it was an opportunity squandered. For a telling of the Mahabharata from Duryodhana’s point of view, one should read Kaka Vidhate’s ‘Duryodhana’, which is in Marathi. Mugdha, I presume you can read marathi – it would be nice if you could post a review of Kaka Vidhate’s Duryodhana. Only point I’d like to make is that the disrobing incident is expected to come in the next instalment, since this book ends with Draupadi being summoned to the dyuta-sabha.
Thanks for bringing Kaka Vidhate’s ‘Duryodhana’ to my notice Ikpoxan. Will definitely try to get a copy and post the review…
Hahaha….I’m amused reading the hate mails your review has elicited Mugdha. Funnily maybe just 5% of the people have actually taken pains to read the original version, and are quick to question Mahabharat on the basis of film, tv serial, or grandma version of storytelling. Mahabharat, a compilation of 18 original books, never claims anyone in the book to be white and black. This book is a classic study of human behavior and how the best of us become worst and vice versa when life throws puzzles at us. It’s sad how quick we are to jump at any conclusion the minute someone throws a pebble in our silent mind.
That’s what I love about the Mahabharata too, that every time you read a (well-written, nuanced, non-black-and-white) retelling of it, it opens up so many new trains of thought.
“Most glaringly, the one incident that gains the Pandavas most
sympathy and establishes the Kauravas as villains – the disrobing of
Draupadi in public – is not even described in the book!”
Ms Mugdha Wagle, your above statement suggests you have not even read the book. Disrobing of Draupadi will be the starting point of next book. Please take time to read a book properly before writing the review.
I completely agree with this review. The book is an interesting concept in theory, but somehow does not work. I do agree that this is largely because of the author trying far too hard to portray Duryodhan as the “poor me hero” who is just a victim of circumstance.
Duryodhan is suddenly innocent of every Kaurava plot in the original Mahabharat. If you take away every incident that made him “evil”, it is easy enough to portray him as the misunderstood hero. This is not really portraying a story from another perspective, its more like inventing a new story.
A more balanced book would have been better, but that does not nullify the decent pace and vivid writing style of the author.
It is an entertaining read, albeit lacking in any literary merit.
I do not agree with the review. The book is entertaining and brings a fresh view of the story that we have heard all our lives.. Don’t get into who was right and who was wrong as both sides in Mahabharata had enough questionable things…..read it for a fresh view and you will enjoy.. I liked the author’s general softness of heart when it came to describing the downtrodden in the society. The curse of Mayasura for Indraprastha describes the current state of Delhi!
Only thing which I felt was that at least at 4-5 places I felt the wrong usage of English and so the editing of the book could have been better..
Looking forward to reading the Book 2……..
Read the second book, the author definitely hits the right marks there.